Driven as much by presumed political necessity as by xenophobic fears, the immigration issue has grabbed headlines and the talking heads of the media over the past few months.
Recent mass demonstrations against proposed immigration restrictions have only fueled the issue further, and among blacks come echoes of nativism, a fear-driven rejection of these newcomers, who are “taking our jobs.”
While it can be argued that many of the jobs taken by Mexican immigrants are jobs that most Americans, black or white, won’t do, the fear remains, and black radio, newspapers, and other media are awash in expressions of concern, and frankly, xenophobia.
This happens, I’m convinced, in the context of a nation with a deep racial hierarchy, which traditionally places blacks at the permanent bottom; and during a period which showed, with painful clarity, that these historical rankings are still amongst us. Witness Katrina.
That said, perhaps history offers lessons for us in this time, threatened by change, that will allow us to find a way out of this cul-de-sac.
In a time of greatest peril, when Africans in the United States were fighting for their freedom from the American forces of slavocracy, two uniquely American communities came to their aid: Native peoples and Mexicans.
How so, you ask?
Before the Civil War, Americans fought at least two wars with the Seminoles, a people then living in Florida. The reason for the wars? The Seminoles, unlike other area tribes, refused to turn in black runaways from American plantations. U.S. Army General Thomas Jesup, who fought the Seminoles, with their hundreds of black warriors, was moved to write: “This, you may be assured, is a [N]egro, not an Indian war.”
When the pro-slavery, white-expansionist war went bad for the Seminoles, red and black Seminoles fled to Mexico (which abolished slavery in 1829), where they were given land, and joined the Mexican Army to defend the country from invading gringos. The Seminoles were led by Coacoochee (also known as Wild Cat), and he was assisted by a black man named John Horse.
Writer William Loren Katz, in his 1986 book Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, informs us that Mexico became a home that wasn’t possible in the United States:
Seminoles arrived in a country that had ended slavery in 1829 and had welcomed slave fugitives ever since. Some three thousand U.S. blacks lived peacefully in Mexico, most of them far from the Rio Grande border. Periodically, slavehunting posses plunged across the river to seize black people for sale back home. Some Mexican politicians conspired with these desperadoes, the better to finance their political campaigns.
Seminole families had hardly settled down when in 1851 U.S. outlaw John “Rip” Ford rode into Mexico with a band of four hundred men. Wild Cat and John Horse were called upon to drive out the bandits, former Texas Rangers and unemployed Texans. Sixty Seminole fighters drove back the Texans without a casualty.
When black folks needed help the most, Mexico stood on freedom’s side. What does that mean, 150 years later? It means that Blacks and Browns have a shared history of resistance against oppression. It means that Blacks and Browns need not be the strangers they fear, nor the antagonists they dislike. History can open doors of recognition and long-lost remembrance. It can begin to heal, not the past, but the present.